Recovering The Past is an innovative photographic project of 25 striking and thought provoking images.
A project of post-conflict achievement and reconciliation, which portrays a journey of human dedication of two groups of men whose origins lie a century apart, yet who are united through a disastrous conflict.
All wars will have consequences. 'Recovering The Past' raises the profile of two such consequences that afflicted Belgian and Australian societies for many years after the Great War’s guns fell silent; those of unexploded ammunition and conflict induced human trauma.
A century on from the battles of 1917, the former and infamous Ypres Salient now plays host to an ongoing military operation that routinely engages with a lethal legacy of that conflict, that of unexploded ammunition.
A Poelkapelle based bomb disposal team has been operating since 1920. Initially it was expected that the clear-up operation would be completed within three years, this was not to be the case. Today - a century after the Armistice - DOVO-SEDEE’s distinctly marked vehicles will depart its Houthulst barracks to collect the continually unearthed ammunition from the fields, construction sites and gardens of Flanders, all once the former battlefields of the Great War.
In 2017, alone DOVO-SEDEE’s Poelkapelle team recovered 220 tons of ammunition of Great War vintage from in and around the former Ypres Salient. The recovery of unexploded ammunition from the former Great War battlefields of Flanders is expected to continue for many years to come. It is important to remind ourselves that the consequence of unexploded ammunition - or 'duds' - from human conflict is a global issue and not one restricted solely to Flanders former battlefields.
Whilst illuminating the little known processes and procedures of DOVO-SEDEE, 'Recovering The Past' also enables the viewer to contemplate the great personal risks taken by these highly trained personnel in their efforts to create a safer environment for the population of Flanders.
All five divisions of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) saw action in the Third Battle of Ypres. Despite suffering 38,000 casualties in a period of just eight weeks of fighting, the AIF made significant contributions to the successful outcome of the fighting in Flanders. These men and their crucial contribution is recognised in this work through their incorporation into this project’s images.
The silencing of the guns in November 1918 ended the tragedy of the Great War, but also heralded the start of countless individual battles with psychological trauma. Men on all sides would suffer years if not a lifetime's worth of emotional torment from being under constant bombardment or exposure to terrifying scenes. In the years after the Armistice, suicide was take a terrible toll on its former combatants.
The social consequences of the Great War affected the populations of all its combatant nations; Australia was not exempt. Conflict induced trauma was not suffered by the shell-shocked returning men of the AIF alone but by Australian society in general, many thousands of grieving mothers, widows and orphans were to pay testament to this. Many more women were destined to provided long term or life-long care for their returning menfolk who were often afflicted with significant physical and mental health issues.
With its striking portrayal of the men of the AIF, 'Recovering The Past' has humanised the Great War. The faces of the 'Diggers' that stare out from the exhibition's images reveal individual men; men whose identities war inevitably turned to a statistic. Recovering the Past does not give the Australian soldiers depicted in the photographs a voice, but it does give them a presence and a forum in which to be seen. They will stand tall to the viewers of this project.
'Recovering The Past' sets new standards in its unique visual exploration of both post-conflict achievement and reconciliation, and in the raising of consequences of human conflict. Importantly, these consequences are not unique to The Great War alone, they apply to all wars since - globally - and those to come. This exhibition therefore carries a universal message and timeless relevance.
The Australian Connection
Why illustrate this project with Australian soldiers? A question I am regularly asked at exhibitions of this work, the answer is straightforward, ‘why not’? Of course the reason extends far beyond that simplistic yet accurate statement; the images in this project have been created around the inspired work of Australian artistic and cultural icons of the Great War period.
In a series of emotionally charged photographs, Frank Hurley captured - often and at great personal risk - the significant contribution made by the AIF during ‘Passchendaele. Many of these photographs would themselves become components of his much celebrated montage images. The ultimate sacrifice of the ‘Diggers’ was later embodied in the painting ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ by Australian artist Will Longstaff.
Australia’s contribution to the history of the Great War as we know it is not limited to the fighting. Much of what happened in the trenches was revealed to us through the powerful photographs and montage images produced by Captain James Francis (Frank) Hurley.
Taking great personal risks to capture a true picture of the battle, his photographs graphically portray the daily existence of the fighting man in the shattered and torturous landscape of the Ypres Salient. Hurley’s commitment to create battlefield scenes from multiple negatives brought him into regular conflict with official historian Charles Bean.
His famed and celebrated composite images were an essential inspiration behind the concept of Recovering The Past. Hurley explained why he created such images:
"To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried, but but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are scattered. The atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke. Shells will not burst where required. It might as well be a rehearsal in a paddock. It is impossible to secure full effects of this bloody war without composite pictures. It's unfair to our soldiers"
Created for an exhibition at London's Grafton galleries in May 1918, this image entitled 'A Raid', is a montage of 12 of Hurley’s own images of the the Great War.
‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ by Will Longstaff
The celebrated ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ was painted by Australian artist Will Longstaff in 1927.
Longstaff’s artistic approach to depicting personnel in his painting is adopted and used to great effect in Recovering The Past. The transparent appearance applied to the Australian personnel in this project has imbued them with a sense of peace, greatly at odds with the war-torn environment in which they fought.
‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ commemorates those soldiers with ‘no known grave’ on the Western Front. Longstaff produced this most poignant of paintings after attending the dedication ceremony of the Menin Gate itself.
Touring Australia between 1927-1928, ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ was to be seen by record crowds.